Exploring the World Federico Garcia Lorca Left Behind

Federico Garcia Lorca lives on in his beloved Granada, in Spain, in this world that is ours.

Desde mi cuarto/oigo el surtidor
From my room I hear the fountain

I always thought that Federico Garcia Lorca wrote these lines at his Granada home, the family’s summer house at the city’s edge. One reason why I thought so is the poem’s title: Granada y 1850 (Granada and 1850). The sense of heavy foreboding that hangs over this short, haiku-like poem is the other, more important reason:

“Through the August air the clouds drift. And I dream that I do not dream within the fountain.”

Fourteen years after he wrote this poem, in the early afternoon of another day in August, as Lorca sat in this house, Falangist guards called him from outside, and as the poet came out, took him away. He was never to come back. Lorca is presumed to have been shot in custody the next day, August 19, 1936. The artist, in whose every work dreams mingled freely and luminously with the everyday realities of ordinary lives, was not to dream any more. Even his grave was never traced. Today, one does not hear the fountain from the Huerta de San Vicente (Garden of Saint Vincent), as the house has always been called.

It was built in the early years of the 20th century, away from the bustling city and in the middle of the country, a true country home. A few gurgling little fountains kept up their chatter near the house all through the long summer days, while the red Alhambra loomed in the distance. Now there is a sprawling park around the house, built in memory of the poet and named after him, and you have to walk through it for seven or eight minutes past rose patches and jasmine bushes till you sight the simple, white-washed, rectangular house standing next to an orange grove. It is a low tiled two-storey house with green doors and a beautiful grillwork railing runs along the side of the veranda on the first floor. At one side of the house stand two tall cypresses that Lorca and his brother planted when both were kids. There is ivy climbing upwards on the sides and the place gives you a sense of space, comfort and peace, every inch the typical Andalusian middle-class home.

It was rather late on a clear November afternoon that I reached Huerta, the sun was out in a deep blue sky, a few lazy white-as-sheep’s-fleece clouds ambled around and no one was in sight. I had of course known all along that it would be siesta time at the Huerta as well, but never imagined that there would not even be curious onlookers, or at least any of the support staff of the museum, which the house now is. I walked around the house once or twice, stared at the notice board hung on the wall near the entrance to the museum book shop trying to figure out when the place would open for visitors, coughed a couple of times, coughed again, and had nearly given up hope when a side door opened. A pleasant face appeared behind it, smiled an avuncular smile and informed me that 4 pm was when visitors were allowed inside, and would I please step into the office for the tickets.

I was not in luck, however, because the 4 pm slot was fully sold out. All visits to the house-museum are guided tours and since it is a small place, only groups of 15 or fewer can go in at one time. It turned out that a high school from Valencia had booked the afternoon tour for its children some days in advance, and the earliest I could hope to get in was at 5:30 that evening. Well, there was nothing to it except to buy the tickets for the evening, which I promptly did, and wait. I then walked through the park again, took some photos, even plucked an orange from one of the trees that I imagined was old enough to have served the Lorca household and then walked across to a cafe nearby. After the coffee, I came back again and sat on a tree stump near the house to watch two little boys playing football in an open patch of grass next to the orange grove. There was a small outhouse that had clearly been part of the house when it was occupied, and a somewhat faded banner strung on two poles in front of it announced a children’s drawing competition held in that shed some days previously. I remembered that the poet had been a keen painter as well.

The avuncular gentleman whom I had accosted earlier came out of his office at this stage, apparently for a smoke. We got talking, which, indeed, was more of the sign language stuff than anything else, his English being quite as good (or as bad) as my Spanish. But he invited me to the book shop, saying that I could pass the time there as it had started getting rather cold outside and the wind was rising. I was glad to oblige. I knew night temperatures in Granada often fell to well below zero at that time of the year, as it had done in the morning that day when I was getting ready to go the Alhambra.

It was not a large store, but fairly well stocked with books by and on Lorca and on the family home. There were reminiscences and biographies too, many in Spanish, but I spotted known English authors such as Ian Gibson and Leslie Stainton as well. I picked up a book of poems, in English translation, written by poets from many countries in homage to Lorca: the contributors included Antonio Machado, Pablo Neruda, Yevgeni Yevtushenko, Nikos Kavvadios,  Odysseas Elytis and Bengal’s own Sunil Gangopadhyay. But what engaged my attention the most were prints of Lorca’s own drawings and paintings. I knew that the poet was a painter as well, but never imagined the range of his interest and skills. There were quite a few ink drawings of human figures which were very Cocteauesque in their design and execution, bare of all embellishments and decorative elements. San Sebastian was one such, a light-brown canvas criss-crossed by 12-13 arrows all pointing towards the centre or thereabouts and a single human eye looking on tenderly from amidst them. The Barbarous Nights series of drawings were more varied in texture and design, some of them dedicated to Salvador Dali, the poet’s closest friend for many years. I saw a few quite colourful illustrations in oil as well, all meant for some poem of his own or for one of his friends’, like Rafael Alberti. It was clear that he had been aware of the work of the major cubists as well, and he frequently used the technique of superimposing, one upon another, different perspectives of the same frame, and altogether different frames as well. His fascination with Dali’s persona and art of the time could not to be missed even by eyes as completely untrained as mine, but he did not seem to share Dali’s passion for the bizarre. I bought a few, mostly postcard-size, prints of Lorca’s drawings/paintings and could not thank the curator enough for letting me into the store seemingly out of turn.

Huerta de Saint Vicente. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Huerta de Saint Vicente. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There were prints of quite many photographs as well, of the poet, his family, his sister, friends and family get-togethers. The most charming were pictures of the family at lunch, with the table set in the shadow of the cypresses on a summer afternoon and everyone clearly enjoying themselves greatly. The baby Federico, swaddled in bed clothes, also makes a very striking period picture.

The sun was near setting when our tour of the museum was announced and a brisk-mannered young lady turned out to be the guide. She wanted to know how many of us spoke Spanish, and I appeared to be the odd man out. She tried to goad me into acknowledging that I spoke some Spanish, but I did not rise to the bait. I was determined not to miss out on the details she was sure to dispense in course of the tour. My routine of “Perdone! Hablo no Espanyol” came in handy, although our guide did not seem to like it very much.

The tour started with the Lorcas’ drawing room on the ground floor. The furniture and even the upholstery and the curtains are from the time the poet was alive. The house lay locked for over 40 years as the family had moved away from it soon after Lorca’s death. Francisco Franco’s men had celebrated the poet’s execution by burning his books at the Plaza de Carmen in Granada, and thereafter Lorca’s writings were banned in the country of his birth for many years. The house was restored to its original shape in the early 1990s, after democracy had returned to Spain, and Lorca’s younger sister had helped in setting up this museum. The furniture is comfortable but unpretentious. There is a piano and the walls are hung with photographs and framed paintings. A couple of photos were of sets of the family theatre, sets that the poet and his friends including Dali had helped put together for Lorca’s sister, and there were pictures of Lorca acting as well. The paintings included one done by and gifted to Lorca by his friend Alberti, an accomplished painter as well as poet.

The kitchen was the next stop, followed by the dining room that featured the table I had seen in the photograph earlier in the evening. Here too, everything was simple but elegant, in an understated kind of fashion. The tea service was in blue ceramic and pots and pans all bore on them marks of many years’ use. There could be no doubt that these things dated back to the time that Granada’s most famous son lived and worked here.

A wide stairway took us to the bedrooms. Lorca’s bedroom is roomy but comfortable, a simple bedstead, a bedside table, a small chest of drawers and his writing table making up all the furniture in it. Paintings were hung on the wall in this room as well, also some masks, but what struck one was that nothing was very large or imposing here, not even the paintings, which were twelve inches by ten or so, at the most. The writing table is a typical early 20th-century oak desk, and the table-top was ink-stained. The ink was from the poet’s pen, our guide explained. This is the table at which Lorca wrote his Bernarda Alba, his Gypsy Ballads and Dreams of my Cousin Aurelia, his last play. The table sat next to the window which was overhung by ivies. The smell of jasmine wafted in.

As we were leaving the room, our guide pointed to a small once-white-now-grey stool and said she would explain its use a little later. This she did presently, as we were taken to the terrace. The lights were coming on at the Alhambra even as the light from the last rays of the sun filtered through the clouds on the west. The Alhambra had been one of Lorca’s passions and he loved to look at the grand fortress every evening as the sun was setting. The stool was the one he used to sit on as he came to the terrace in the evening for this purpose.

A few more questions were asked, our guide responded with enthusiasm – by now she had somewhat warmed up to the lone non-Spanish speaking visitor as well – and the tour had ended. We shook hands, exchanged email addresses and then were on our respective ways. As I walked back to the bus stand through the park, I suddenly heard the sound of rippling water. I walked eagerly towards where the sound came from:  it was an artificial fountain behind a line of poplars that had all gone red and brown in the late autumn air. I breathed in deeply the clear air, and recalled Lorca’s lines from Poet in New York one more time:

Then I realized I had been murdered.
They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches
…but they did not find me.
They never found me ?
No. They never found me.

No. Franco and his men never got around to finding the poet. He lives on in his beloved Granada, in Spain, in this world that is ours.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic and translator who lives in Bangalore. He has published a book of translations from the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay.